Posted by Jeff Pfeiffer
Tonight’s episode of The War begins with an incredibly eerie account from Ray Leopold, who explains a conversation he had with a German soldier who had just been captured by his outfit. The German, in perfect, accent-free English, persists in asking Leopold the exact location from which he comes. When Leopold tells him he is from Waterbury, Connecticut, the German turns out to be very familiar with the minute details of the area. Puzzled, Leopold asks how he knows so much.
Following the German’s explanation, Leopold says, “my blood ran cold.” The German mentions that he has been trained “for the administration of the Territories.” Evidence that Hitler had his eye on expanding his conquest from Europe to the United States brings home even further the necessity of the war. The conclusion of this frightening tale is told over a slow zoom into a particularly menacing photo of Hitler, a shot which perfectly captures his unique combination of ambition, rage, evil and madness.
And as this episode details, Hitler isn’t giving up on his ambitions so easily, even though the Allies have fought all the way into Germany. Leopold and the other troops stationed in the Ardennes, which had been so quiet they called it “the ghost front,” soon find themselves attacked in an unexpected counteroffensive by the Germans.
Burt Wilson of Sacramento, who was a boy at the time, recalls seeing in the newspapers — which featured daily maps that were updated to show how the Western front was proceeding — a sudden “bulge” backward in the line where once the line had continually been advancing forward in the Allies’ favor. His fears must have reflected those of many who also saw the sudden changes in the map: “Are we losing?”
Leopold, Tom Galloway (who had also fought in the Hurtgen Forest) and others recall this Battle of the Bulge, the largest fight of the war on the Western front which also happened to take place during a brutally cold winter. The Germans planned it on a misty, snowy day, when Allied air support could not come in to attack them. Along with terrifying tales of incredible loss of life, the horror is magnified by accompanying images of frozen corpses in foxholes, frostbitten men carried away, perhaps losing their toes or entire feet, and the appalling aftermath of the infamous Malmedy Massacre, when Germans simply gunned down more than 70 Americans who had surrendered.
Burnett Miller of Sacramento explains just how unprepared they were for the weather conditions, having arrived wearing only the overcoats which they wore when they arrived in London, and thin shoes which served no protection against the ice and snow.
Leopold figures again in a couple of fascinating recollections. Being a Jew, Leopold had reason to hate the Germans more than the average soldier. But being a Jew also put him at greater risk. A fellow soldier told him that if he was captured, and the Germans discovered that he was a Jew, he would not survive. His advice to Leopold was to put his dog-tags (which had, like all Jewish soldiers’ tags, a conspicuous “H” on them) inside his glove. If he needed to surrender, he was to remove his glove and tag quickly, toss them to the ground, and cover them with snow.
Leopold also explains how, after being shot, and with no medic around to help, he ended up taking the bullet out and patching the wound himself. Medics were so impressed with his work that they offered him the position of medic himself. Leopold, a pacifist very uncomfortable with killing, no matter how much he despised the Nazis, gladly takes this weaponless position where he can still help his fellow men.
Yet there were costs with that role, as well. Leopold is still sorrowful over the grueling decisions he had to make as a medic, when he would have to walk past a wounded soldier crying out for help, whom Leopold knew was not going to survive due to the nature of his wound, and continue on to a soldier who actually could make it with medical help.
And this episode talks about other frightening decisions that need to be made in war — moral decisions. One veteran describes how an officer ordered his outfit to shoot a group of German prisoners in retaliation for the Malmedy murders. Though some soldiers refused, others followed the orders, only to be overwhelmed by guilt and disgust later. It’s a startling moment, a reminder — which we’ve also seen in Vietnam and Iraq — that in the heat of war Americans can also let their baser instincts for revenge take over.
When the episode moves to the Pacific war, we meet up again with young Sascha Weinzheimer and her family, who are still prisoners of the Japanese, along with many others, at the Santo Tomas camp in Manila. But hope is rising. Through Sascha’s journal we hear her descriptions of increasing American planes flying overhead, dropping a leaflet promising them that their freedom is at hand. At this point Sascha’s mother has been emaciated down to 75 pounds. After Sascha and the others are freed, her diary — which, if you’ve been following the series, has been amazingly detailed and powerfully emotional, especially coming from an 11-year-old — describes the utter ruin of Manila that she sees on her jeep ride out.
Another key battle in the Pacific, Iwo Jima, is chronicled here. Ray Pittman of Mobile lends his personal experience to this segment, which details the monthlong fighting against 21,000 determined Japanese soldiers. In a nice change of pace, the film does not show the obvious, classic image of Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima, instead showing lesser-known footage of the combat.
Following the victory at Iwo Jima, American bombers are able to begin bombing the homeland of Japan heavily. With most of the buildings made of paper and wood, millions are killed and burned out of their homes. Glenn Frazier, still imprisoned in Japan, explains the mixed feeling of joy and seeing the American planes, and the fear that they may very well kill him and his other captives, as well.
By episode’s end, victory in Europe is very close, but Japan and its citizens are steadfast in their resolve to keep fighting, leading Allied planners to develop a strategy for an invasion of Japan that fearful estimates say will kill half a million Americans, and millions more Japanese.
Soldier in Ardennes: Credit: National Archives